HPU men open league play at Winthrop
The High Point University men’s basketball team starts with something of a clean slate today.
After winning just three of their 10 games against nonconference opponents, the 5-7 Panthers open Big South play at Winthrop (2 p.m., WMFR), starting a 19-game journey that HPU hopes will end with a tournament championship and the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
“The guys know what is at stake and they look forward to the challenge,” HPU head coach Scott Cherry said on Thursday. “They know the season comes down to the 16 regular season conference games and hopefully three games in the tournament. They want to win the Big South championship. That’s been our goal
“But for most of our guys, it’s their first time through the league schedule. The good thing is now we can get into a routine of going to class and then having games on Wednesday and Saturday.”
HPU comes off a win over Austin Peay in the third-place game of a tournament in Chattanooga, The triumph broke a six-game losing streak against Division I teams. Four of those losses were by seven points or less.
“Any time you win, it gives you a boost,” Cherry said. “The guys fought through some adversity and pulled out a win. They did a good job of rebounding after a tough loss the day before. We’re going in a good direction.”
The Panthers are also at full strength with the return of guard Devante Wallace, who missed the first 10 games because of injury before playing in both of the contests in Chattanooga. Wallace averaged 10 points in the two games.
“We’ve finally got a full team,” Cherry said. “We have everyone healthy on the floor like we did in the first two days of practice. We’re able to put a full compliment of players on the floor.”
Wallace gives the Panthers another outside shooting threat, something they have been lacking on a consistent basis since opening the season with back-to-back wins. Wallace hit only 3 of 13 tries from 3-point range in his return but did connect on nearly 40 per cent of his 3-point tries last season.
“He helps us on the perimeter,” Cherry said. “He gives us another 3-point threat. He gives us length, experience and depth. He will help keep people honest, instead of packing their defense around the basket. He may not get us to 40 percent shooting from 3 but he’s going to help.”
Winthrop presents challenge even though the Eagles are 6-6 under first-year coach Pat Kelsey, who was on Skip Prosser’s staff at Wake Forest. The Eagles have meaningful wins over Ohio and Auburn. They also have the second best RPI among Big South teams according to CBSSports.com at 193. HPU is listed as No. 308. Both teams defeated non-Division I St. Andrews and lost to Indiana State.
“They have a lot of confidence right now,” Cherry said. “They believe in their coach and they believe in the system that he has in place.”
Winthrop has prospered despite returning just one starter from a team that HPU defeated twice last season. Derrick Henry, a 6-3 sophomore, is the leading scorer with a 14.1 points per game average and has reached double figures in 10 of 12 games. Senior guard Gideon Gamble is the returning starter and is averaging 9.7 points. Joab Jerome, a 6-5 forward, averages 8.4 points, and 5-10 sophomore Andre Smith averages 8.3.
Larry Brown, a 6-6 sophomore, is the leading rebounder, averaging 5.5 per game. He is also the only player who has started every game.
“They have a bunch of guys who were role players last year and are producing as starters this year,” Cherry said. “They all played before this year and some of them had a few starts, more than most of my guys have.
“They do a pretty job of keeping teams from getting the ball inside, so like everyone, they will concentrate on keeping us from getting it to John Brown and Allan Chaney. “And they’ve had success playing four guards at a time so we’re going to doing some chasing.”